How Dewar's death exposes the frailty of devolution

The tributes to Scotland's First Minister have glossed over the complex nightmare he leaves behind
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The Independent Online

Never mind the quality, feel the width. The greatest testimony to Donald Dewar's political significance has been the sheer scale of the tributes. Newsnight devoted almost its entire programme to his death. The Nine O'Clock News had four separate reports, taking up over half the bulletin. The broadsheets all led with the story and had copious tributes and analysis inside.

Never mind the quality, feel the width. The greatest testimony to Donald Dewar's political significance has been the sheer scale of the tributes. Newsnight devoted almost its entire programme to his death. The Nine O'Clock News had four separate reports, taking up over half the bulletin. The broadsheets all led with the story and had copious tributes and analysis inside.

If Mr Dewar had died as a plain old secretary of state for Scotland in a Britain that did not have a Scottish Parliament, the tone of the tributes would have been precisely the same, but the amount of coverage would have been much smaller.

Indeed it would have been smaller for most members of the Westminster cabinet. Mr Dewar mattered because he was Scotland's First Minister, a more significant post as far as many Scots are concerned than Prime Minister. The rest of Britain took note, too, that Scotland had lost its leading figure. Before devolution Scotland did not have a leading figure.

The reporting told us at least as much about the changed political geography of Britain as it did about Mr Dewar. As the politician who did more than most to bring about the change, Mr Dewar would have liked that.

Even so, there has been something disingenuous about the doting obituaries, as there was when John Smith suddenly died. The Scottish newspapers that are now portraying Mr Dewar as a saint have been savaging him for the last 18 months. Until his death, anyone reading their hyperbolic reporting of Scottish politics would have concluded that the First Minister was hanging on to power by his fingertips, thrown from one apparent crisis to another. The newspaper coverage in Scotland of Mr Dewar's regime was similar to the media treatment of John Major's government in its dying days.

The hysteria surrounding Mr Major's decline was largely justified. Anyone visiting Scotland would quickly realise that the newspapers had exaggerated Mr Dewar's difficulties. Nonetheless he did face seemingly insurmountable problems at times and it would be wrong to airbrush them out of history.

In some ways he was too decent for the trauma of this new political experiment. The qualities he is being praised for now - his indifference to presentation, his scholarly openness - were not so valued when it looked as if Labour was going to lose the Scottish elections last year to the SNP. In the end Gordon Brown and his entourage were forced to vacate the Treasury for a few weeks to turn the elections around. Mr Brown succeeded partly because of his astute presentational skills.

There is no question that Mr Dewar was an immensely talented politician, probably the only one who could deliver devolution. It certainly seemed to be beyond the skills of the multi-talented George Robertson, who came badly unstuck when he was shadow Scottish secretary in the run-up to the general election. As his party's Europe spokesman Mr Robertson acquired the reputation of being the only man in the Commons who understood every word and nuance of the thorny Maastricht treaty. Maastricht he could handle. The politics of devolution he could not.

Most of the time Mr Dewar could. But even he looked vulnerable at times as the SNP threat rose, the Lib Dems proved awkward partners, and the papers wielded their unforgiving knives. To suggest otherwise, to paint the immediate past in a rosy glow, would be to underplay the fragility, the nightmarish complexities of getting devolution to work. Such a rewriting of recent history will not help the much smaller political figure who will inherit the crown.

In reality, Mr Dewar leaves a paradoxical legacy. The reaction to his death shows that the notion of devolution is already embedded in the psyche of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The weeks ahead will highlight his indispensability and expose the frailty of his devolution project.

Tim Yeo, the Conservatives' agriculture spokesman, is unlikely to be remembered for any statement he has made on farming. Nor, unless the Tories win the next election, will he be Britain's next agriculture minister. Yet Mr Yeo is a defining figure in the modern Conservative Party. In a very different way from Mr Dewar, Mr Yeo deserves his place in history. He has pointed the way to his party's future and drawn a line under its past.

Of the eight members of the Shadow Cabinet who confessed to smoking pot, Mr Yeo's was the most startling. He told a newspaper that he smoked it and enjoyed the experience. This went a little further than his other colleagues who had confessed to inhaling but left us in the dark as to what happened to them next. We do not know whether they threw their joint away in disgust or, like the agriculture spokesman, had a pretty cool time.

No doubt Mr Yeo's double whammy will have been especially painful for Ann Widdecombe, who was only just coming to terms with the most remarkable Shadow Cabinet revolt that I can recall. Now she has to get to grips with the notion that at least one of them enjoyed what they were doing. By that I mean at least one of them enjoyed the experience of smoking cannabis. All eight of them were on a high from the experience of knifing Ms Widdecombe.

But Mr Yeo is more significant than a one-time pot smoker. His name revives memories of the last time the Conservatives used a party conference to try to tell us how to behave. Again it was Mr Yeo who was instrumental in the moral bossiness backfiring, although on that occasion he undermined the Conservative leadership inadvertently.

In 1993 John Major launched his "Back to Basics" campaign at the party conference in Blackpool in a desperate bid to revive his government's fortunes. After the speech Downing Street prepared a document for ministers, leaked to the newspapers, in which it argued that the battle against socialism had been won. Now it was time to take on the new enemies of liberalism and permissiveness.

Unfortunately, the following Boxing Day the Daily Mail reported that Mr Yeo, then an Environment minister, had been behaving rather permissively himself. This time he had not been smoking pot, but had fathered a child with his mistress. This was the moment when "Back to Basics" started to unravel. As with the dope smoking, Mr Yeo was not alone. Other ministers and Tory MPs who were conducting illicit affairs wondered if they would be next. Some of them were. Secretly gay MPs trembled, too. "Back to Basics" was dropped almost as brutally as Ms Widdecombe's hardline proposals for dope smokers.

The Conservatives could not deliver a populist authoritarian agenda in 1993 and they cannot do so now. The internal debate between liberalism and authoritarianism is over before it has properly begun. The Tories' personal behaviour prevents them from moralising to the rest of us.

Here is a prediction. After the next election the Tories, desperately seeking definition, will become the party of social liberalism - because so many of their leading lights have been socially liberal themselves. Mr Yeo will have led the way.